Let’s talk Northern Montana and the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road, which cuts through Glacier National Park. Drive the full route and bring your bags. We’ve found a few amazingly scenic spots to stay the night and soak in the views.
It’s not the easiest place to get to from Michigan, but it’s worth the effort, we promise. You’ll need a connecting flight to fly into the suburban-ish town of Kalispell, Montana (FCA), but a 30-minute drive will get you to Whitefish, a walkable western town that serves as the perfect starting point for your trek into Glacier National Park.
Picturesque old-town streets, unique shops, farm-to-fork diners and rowdy bars. Whitefish is the perfect pit stop before heading into the park for a few days.
A few of our recommendations for your first day (or two) in Whitefish:
- The Firebrand Hotel: The largest hotel in the downtown area, the Firebrand is a newer property with a cozy lobby, complete with fireplace and bar. It’s located on the edge of the downtown district, making it an easy walk to restaurants and retail, even in cold winter weather. A huge plus – the large rooftop hot tub :)
- Loula’s Cafe: We loved breakfast at Loula’s, where we saddled up to the coffee bar and dished on the Glacier Peaks Scramble and Eggs Benny. It’s a buzzy, busy spot serving up the first meal of the day from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m. AND best of all, if you save room, justify a slice of their legendary pie with all the hiking you have planned in your near future.
- Tupelo Grille: We made dinner reservations at Tupelo Grille (we’d heard that it was the best place in town), but ended up grabbing a table in their lounge where live music was going strong. The drinks were great, the food was excellent and we’d absolutely go back if we had the chance.
- Remington Bar: We ducked into this jam-packed bar after dinner to grab a drink and listen to an awesome folk band rocking out in back. Also, a great spot to gab with locals. (Note: It seemed like this crowd was more late 20s / 30s, while the younger folks veered toward Casey’s, which is also downtown.)
- The Toggery: Pop into this outdoor gear / clothing store and you’ll be occupied for more than a few minutes (plus it’s attached to a Montana Coffee Traders coffee shop). They’ve got ALL the goods. Adorable coffee mugs, legit thermos offerings, jewelry, active wear, fashionable apparel … I (Jess) loved it and have my fingers crossed for an online shop soon.
Inside the Park: LAKE MCDONALD
Whether you spend a day or two in Whitefish, or head directly into the park, the most obvious first stop is Lake McDonald, the 10-mile-long lake (the largest in the park) that’s not far from the primary entrance of Glacier National Park. There are plenty of turnoffs to stop and soak up the scenery, but we especially liked our stop at the historic Lake McDonald Lodge (in fact, we wished we’d stayed there!).
Day One of any national park visit can feel overwhelming. Here’s how we introduced ourselves to Glacier, and how we’d have changed our itinerary in hindsight:
- Going-to-the-Sun Road: Perhaps the most famous element of Glacier is this 50-mile stretch of pavement that slices through the park, offering gorgeous views and trailheads. Our plan was to wake up early and get a head start on the two-hour-by-car route simply to get our bearings before the crowds came in late morning. It goes without saying that we slept in and lazily made our way into the park. Fortunately, while we hit some traffic along the narrowest parts of the route, it wasn’t at all overrun. We took our time driving the first half of the route on the first day, stopping to take in the views or hike. Stunning. Note: The road is typically open from late June to mid October due to snow and weather conditions. We found it fully accessible over our Fourth of July trip – hooray!
- Lake McDonald Lodge: Built in 1913, this gorgeous historic lodge bumps right up to the waters of Lake McDonald is only a short 10-mile drive into the park. With its Swiss Chalet style and cavernous log lobby, it’s about as dreamy a national park lodge as you can think up. The down side? There are a scant 82 rooms available, so they book up fast. Go, check availability now! It’s not luxury lodging, per se. But, it’s darn gorgeous and the location can’t be beat. You’ll also find the iconic Red Bus Tours departing here, which are group tours of the park in adorable vintage 1930 convertible buses.
- Logan Pass: The highest point in the park – and also where you can straddle the Continental Divide. This is as far as we drove on Day One. You’ll find one of the park’s three visitor centers here. But, be warned, the parking fills up fast so stopping may not always be an option. If you do nab a spot, consider the below hike, which sets off behind the visitor’s center and is a perfect afternoon interlude.
- Hidden Lake Overlook Trail: Only 1.5 miles each way, a large portion of this trail is on wood-laid pathways, which makes for unusually easy hiking in comparison to the snow-packed inclines that await. Bring hiking poles, if you’ve got ’em. Once you find yourself near the overlook, take some time to get comfy and enjoy a snack (or maybe some smuggled-in wine?) and keep an eye out for mountain goats. We found out the hard way that they can charge you if you find yourself unintentionally close! Don’t worry, nobody got hurt ;)
Inside the Park: MANY GLACIER
My least-anticipated yet by-far favorite portion of the park was Many Glacier. Tough to get to and somewhat removed from the more populated park areas, this section of Glacier is quieter but just as scenic. For some reason, my research hadn’t led me to consider staying in Many Glacier, but in hindsight, I wish we had! There’s a historic lodge (of course) sitting on the most picturesque lake, and several meandering trails to explore.
- Many Glacier Hotel: Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1915, this gem is yet another historic lakeside property inside Glacier. Two-hundred-and-five guest rooms make it much more spacious than Lake McDonald, but it holds a different type of charm. And the restaurant views can’t be beat; it’s stunning. Just don’t expect too much in the way of amenities; it’s a basic property with basic guest rooms (and no TVs or A/C). Keep in mind, this secluded step-back-in-time is open only 100 days per year, on average.
- Grinnell Lake Trail: Roughly 3.5 miles each way, this low-elevation hike rolls past two gorgeous lakes before ending at the serenity of Grinnell Lake. While the Iceberg Lake Trail was top on Trevor’s list, the elevation seemed a bit too much for me at 1,200 feet (and 9-miles total) in my exhausted first-trimester state. However, Grinnell turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. We spotted bear tracks along the muddier portions of our path and even came close to a grizzly. Yep, we were definitely carrying bear spray AND a bear bell, in case you’re curious.
Outside the Park: Canada’s WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Now, this is where this our time in Glacier National Park ends. We crossed the border to explore Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park, as well as Banff National Park and Yoho National Park further north. But admittedly, this road-trip extension added a ton of cost to our trip in the form of a $1,000 rental car fee for dropping off our U.S.-originating Subaru in Calgary, Alberta. We knew about this fee going into the trip and decided that in this case, the added flexibility of having the vehicle was worth the cost. But, that’s a steep price to pay for some extra freedom.
If I could make a recommendation to you, I’d suggest an overnight visit to Waterton National Park and the spectacular Prince of Wales Hotel, before heading back toward Kalispell to fly out and return your rental vehicle.
If we had the opportunity to build the ideal itinerary focusing on Glacier (without adding in a Canadian Rockies component), here’s what we’d recommend:
Our Ideal Glacier National Park Itinerary
- Day One / Two: Fly into Kalispell, rent a vehicle and head into Whitefish for a one or two night’s stay at The Firebrand Hotel, dependent on when your flight arrives (ours was a late arrival, so we opted to stay two nights). Explore the town and enjoy its laid-back nightlife, excellent food – including huckleberry-flavored-everything and sunset views from the hotel’s rooftop hot tub.
- Day Three / Four: Choose a Glacier National Park lodge – either Lake McDonald or Many Glacier – to get cozy for two nights. Spend your afternoons hiking and your evenings enjoying stunning lake views from the restaurants at either property. Be sure to visit whichever property you’re not staying at! Be sure to drive the entirety of the magnificent Going-to-the-Sun Road.
- Day Five / Six: Head north into Canada for one evening at Waterton Lakes National Park and the Prince of Wales Hotel, perched on a hill overlooking the water that separates Montana from our great northern neighbor. Head back into the U.S. the following day to fly out of Kalispell.